This content contains spoilers
Tom Cruise’s acting career now spans more than three decades. At age 50, he has perfected what I call the “renegade hero” genre. In movie after movie, from the Mission Impossible franchise to Minority Report and Jack Reacher, he portrays a special kind of American action hero – not that the kind that shoots his way through exploding buildings like Bruce Willis and Will Smith – but a more brainy, reflective and troubled man of action who uses both brains and brawn to fight a system that comes crashing down on him. How many times have we seen IMF agent Ethan Hunt go from being the hunter to the hunted and turn on the very organisation he serves to prove his innocence? Cruise plays that role so successfully that at his advancing age he can still carry an action flick better than most young Hollywood heartthrobs. Although he doesn't always get the credit he deserves, his enduring career casts a long shadow on other spy-fi roles like Jason Bourne and even the modern James Bond.
In Oblivion, Cruise does it again. He plays drone mechanic Jack Harper in the post-apocalyptic world. The year is 2077, six decades after mankind pushed back an alien attack by nuking their own planet and emigrated to a Saturn moon. Harper is among a handful of Earthlings who stay behind to repair unmanned drones used to rid the wasteland of any remaining alien life forms. But the mechanic is haunted by recurring dreams and flashbacks, until a chance encounter with Julia (played by Olga Kurylenko) makes him realise that his friends and foes are not who they appear to be. And so there we have it: another renegade hero ready to take on the establishment. In the final struggle, Harper decimates his true enemies and gets the girl.
Oblivion is directed by 39-year-old Joseph Kosinski whose only credit is Walt Disney’s Tron: Legacy. Like Tron, Oblivion is heavy on visual effects but light on emotion and substance. The movie amounts to two hours of sensory assault that puts the audience to sleep despite ear-splitting sound effects and dizzying chase scenes. I haven't yawned that much in an action movie since Transformers 3.
Oblivion is also derivative. Harper’s awakening from a make-believe world and his earthshaking discovery that he has all along been fighting for the wrong side are taken straight from The Matrix and Total Recall. Kosinski's second film is a rehash of spy-fi greats with a little WALL-E, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow thrown in.
The resemblance to The Matrix is uncanny. Tom Cruise has the same confused look as Keanu Reeves, Morgan Freeman talks like Laurence Fishburne, and Olga Kurylenko is a less edgy Carrie-Anne Moss. Even the drones behave like the squid-like sentinels. The only thing missing is Hugo Weaving’s bullet-dodging, shape-shifting Agent Smith.
Another problem with Oblivion is the casting. Ukrainian-French model-turned-actress Olga Kurylenko looks like a young Catherine Zeta Jones and acts like a Bond Girl. Wait a minute, she was a Bond Girl! Kurylenko plays a Bolivian femme fatale in the universally panned Quantum of Solace. It’s a miracle that the girl with an unpronounceable name and zero acting talent is able to bounce back and star in another Hollywood blockbuster. English actress Andrea Riseborough holds her own as Harper’s steely, make-believe wife Victoria. But her character (and her British accent) reminds me too much of Kate Beckinsale in the awful remake of Total Recall. Talk about haunting flashbacks.
Lacking both creativity and an emotional punch, Oblivion adds nothing to the sci-fi canon. The many visually spectacular sets – including a stunning glass-and-steel apartment where the hero and his wife reside (and swim in the nude) – are interesting but fail to revive a laboured, lifeless story. As such, the movie’s title is well chosen: it will be forgotten in a few months and disappear into cinematic oblivion.